Show caption Illustration: Dominic McKenzie/The Observer Opinion The super-rich, ‘sissy boys’, celebs – all targets in Xi’s bid to end cultural difference Rana Mitter Fearful of the growing influence of entrepreneurs and entertainers, the Chinese leader now demands conformity across all of society Sun 5 Sep 2021 08.00 BST Share on Facebook
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Since the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) on 1 July, political edicts have been flowing out of Beijing. President Xi Jinping declared that China’s economy would now work to provide “common prosperity”. Social media has read this as a rhetorical assault on the country’s billionaires, who have become used to flaunting their wealth. There has been a well-publicised crackdown on entrepreneurs in the technology sector, in part because of the CCP’s increasing concern that figures such as Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, were becoming more prominent than the party itself. New anti-trust legislation may well break up some of the big companies that have dominated the sphere, creating more, smaller companies that the CCP hopes will power innovation through increased competition and also be easier to control politically.
China’s ultra-rich are scrambling to make high-profile philanthropic donations to shore up their reputations and avoid tax inspections, not least as China’s equivalent of HMRC has powers to arrest suspected evaders and hold them incommunicado for months. Technology billionaires are one target, but movie stars are another. Actress Zheng Shuang has been told she faces a $46m (£33m) bill for unpaid taxes and almost all the millions of online mentions of her fellow performer Vicki Zhao Wei have been wiped from China’s internet.
Meanwhile, the censors have cracked down on what they term a “wild” online celebrity fan culture devoted to those same movie stars. For years, China’s online celebrity world has been a mixture of talent contests and increasingly vicious gossip that makes the debates around Love Island seem pretty tame. Much of this rumour mill seems to act as an alternative to political debate; it’s forbidden to criticise top party leaders online, but ranking movie stars as heroes or zeroes was fine – until now. The authorities have even named a source of corruption – China’s “sissy boys”. This term, as sneeringly contemptuous in Chinese as in English, refers to the growing trend of young male stars using makeup and skin products to appear more feminised than the macho norms of traditional Chinese masculinity.
At first glance, “common prosperity” and a desire to eliminate “sissy boy” fan culture seem like separate campaigns. But they point to a growing trend in domestic politics and society: the wish to eliminate difference. In economic areas, that instinct is understandable. China has made huge strides in reducing poverty, but the World Bank still classes a quarter of its population as living on less than $5.50 a day. In this context, the ostentatious lifestyles of the super-rich can be grating.
But the desire to smooth out differences in income is increasingly going hand in hand with a drive to impose conformity on gender norms, ethnicity and, above all, political viewpoints. The price of common prosperity seems to be a common culture with little space for serious variation. The west’s attention has been caught by the drive towards ethnic conformity: “re-education” camps in Xinjiang are reported to have forced Uyghur inmates to abandon ostensible signs of Muslim religious practice and there have been protests in Inner Mongolia as lessons in Mongolian were replaced by teaching in the national language of Mandarin. But China’s authorities are also showing increasing signs of unease about gender and sexual norms. Next year, Hong Kong is due to host the world Gay Games. A few years ago, the freewheeling political atmosphere of the city would have absorbed them without a moment’s thought. But since the passing of the 2020 national security law, which has made swaths of activity potentially illegal under vague, retrospectively defined laws, the Games are causing controversy. A prominent pro-Beijing Hong Kong politician, Junius Ho, has called them a “wolf in sheep’s skin”, suggesting they would encourage ideas of same-sex marriage and encourage foreigners to cause “chaos”.
At one level, China’s dual war against economic inequality and the widening of gender and ethnic norms is not that far off from some of the culture wars in countries such as Hungary (now a close friend of China’s on the world stage) and Poland. All these states have sought to combine government largesse on welfare, increasingly authoritarian control of civil society and media and a stress on supposedly traditional values (though these traditions usually relate to Roman soldiers rather than Greek aesthetes). None of these states bans gay rights, but all are cold homes for LGBTQ+ people or non-traditional gender roles.
In the case of China, however, there are also tensions from within the communist revolution. The CCP was founded on a powerful desire to create social equality, but there has always been disagreement about how far and fast to go. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping was rumoured to have said that “some people must get rich first” as a consequence of his economic reforms. Two decades later, Xi Jinping’s party is concerned about the potential for turmoil if China continues to have a Gini coefficient (the measure of inequality in a country) that is almost as high as that of the United States.
But the CCP has never been just about economics. Gender and sexuality has also been a constant source of trouble for a party that has operated as a fiefdom of a particular type of revolutionary masculinity. As long ago as 1942, the feminist writer Ding Ling challenged Mao Zedong to understand that the role of women in the Chinese revolution was not identical to that of men. He rebuffed her, declaring that class outranked gender as the focus of revolutionary change. Nor is the attack on feminised clothes on men new. During the Cultural Revolution, wearing trendy winklepicker shoes could get you killed as a “class enemy”, every bit as much as having a big house.
Today, social death – erasure from the internet – may yet await the Chinese who flaunt too much of their wealth or, worse still, their excessively lengthy, and now officially unpatriotic, skincare regimes.
• Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford. His latest book is China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism